Global Madison makes connections

GlobalMadisonIf you live on Madison’s near eastside, you may have noticed an uptick in the number of people walking through your neighborhood during the last week of April. They would have been wearing headphones connected to an iPhone or tablet and might have been gazing at what, to you, appeared to be some rather mundane aspect of the landscape. Some of them probably looked a little lost.

These intrepid explorers were actually students in an undergraduate International Studies class taught by geography professor Stephen Young. The course focuses on the challenges raised by new forms of global interdependency. But what can students learn about globalization by walking through Madison?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. While Madison might not exert the same kind of influence over world economic affairs as Chicago or Shanghai, its social and physical geographies have been sculpted in critical ways by its evolving connections with other parts of the globe. Our local landscape is very much globally produced.

The idea for the guided walking tour emerged from a conversation between professors Stephen Young and Robert Roth. While Stephen is a Human Geographer interested in global political-economic processes, Rob’s expertise lies in cartography and geovisualization. The “Global Madison” project, as it came to be known, seemed like a perfect opportunity for collaboration.Shoe Factory

The project began with Stephen and a graduate student, Mario Bruzzone, researching five landmarks on the isthmus. They chose an apartment building that had once been a shoe factory, an old train station, the MGE power plant, a community center, and the Madison Candy Company (now Ground Zero café). In the first half of the 20th century, these spaces were part of a growing manufacturing sector in Madison.

Due to changes in technology and trade policies, services rather than manufacturing drive the local economy today. But those older economic relations remain sedimented in the landscape. Meanwhile, the decline of manufacturing in cities like Madison has been paralleled by the emergence of new industrial spaces in countries like China, which produce many of the goods that are sold in stores along the isthmus.

BetaTestersNext came the tricky part: how to incorporate all this information into a guided walking tour of the area. This is where Rob and a team of students in his graduate seminar came in (pictured left). Over the course of a semester, they built a mobile, interactive map that would take the students on a journey through space and time. The online map routed them to the five landmarks where they would be provided information through text, audio clips, maps and historical images. The students were also given a series of prompts encouraging them to reflect on what the landscape taught them about globalization. They then developed these ideas into a photo essay for a class assignment.

In 2014-15, nearly 500 students successfully completed the walking tour. As well as enhancing their understanding of globalization, the project also had a research component. Rob’s design team used surveys and participant observation to collect information about how students interacted with the technology, what they found most challenging, and – very important – where they got lost! Those findings are being published in a forthcoming, multi-authored paper and will inform future experiments with mobile mapping technologies.

If you want to experience the tour for yourself – by foot or from a computer – you can access the map here.


Author: Geography Staff